We knew it would be popular. In our short few days here, we had already witnessed the long lineups of people outside the most renowned shops waiting to buy freshly made tortillas.
The mad lines outside of the beloved tamale shops would be no different. These aren’t tourists, they’re local residents who will wait a long time to get a tall, moist stack of good tortillas or a grocery bag filled with the best tamales, still steaming in their corn husks. According to google reviews it would be all over by 2:00 pm at Tamales doña emi. So we arrived a few hours early at 11:00 am.
When we arrived at 11:00, there was no line up. Great news! But then it dawned on us… there were no customers at all. No chairs on the sidewalk either. Uh, oh.
Scott half-heartedly asked if they were “abierto.” One of the women said something in Spanish. Scott made out enough to know it meant, “We’re already closed.” We said we thought it was open until 2:00 pm. A young man came over smiling and told us in English the tamales were already gone and that we had to get here very early. “Eight o’clock in the morning,” he said. Obviously, we’d picked the right place. “Okay,” we said. “See you tomorrow early!” The woman in the shop thanked us for coming by anyway.
We’d already had tamales in one form or another either at the meditation centre or in a short visit to a Sunday market in Valle de Bravo. Tamales are everywhere in Mexico. Stuffed with almost every conceivable filling, sweet and savoury, they are wrapped in cornhusks or banana leaves and steamed, fried, boiled, baked, or roasted. As far as a national food, tamales are quintessentially Mexican. Tamales originated here thousands of years ago and spread throughout the rest of Central and South America.
But we wanted these ones. Made in a tiny street shop on a non-descript residential side road across from a community sports centre in Roma, the neighbourhood now made famous by the movie. The shop has been here since 1957. The next morning, we made tamales the day’s priority.
We arrived at 8:15 am. The shutters were still down. But there were already three people waiting and a car was double-parked in front with the blinkers on. As we settled in, leaning against the wall, more people started arriving. Scott took photos. By 8:45, when the security shutters finally rolled up, the line streteched to the end of the block, threatening to bend around the corner. There were about a dozen cars double-parked out front. An elderly woman showed up who obviously knew what she was doing. She had brought a tiny foldable chair with her and plunked it down in the shade of a tree after marking her spot in line. We were third in line. As we inched closer to the counter, a man behind us asked where we were from. He had noticed we spoke English when someone offered to use our camera to take our photo. They asked in Spanish, but Scott had tried to explain it was a manual-focus camera and… blah, blah, blah. Want to help us by using our camera to take a photo of us? Sorry. This camera doesn’t work that way. You’ll have to take a course first. Nothing’s ever simple with Scott’s hobbies.
We told the man we were from Canada and said we heard the tamales here were very good.
“They are the best in all of Mexico,” he said. He turned to the others in line and explained in Spanish that we were Canadian. They all smiled and nodded and said something back.
“Is this your first time to Mexico?” He asked. I told him it was my first time.
“What do you think?”
“I love it!” I said with a huge smile. “The food. The people. The culture and history. I love everything about it.”
A big grin came across the man’s face.
He made a couple of recommendations for us. We ordered four. Two tamales for now, and two others for later.
As we sat down at a counter and opened our steamy presents, an arm reached over us and placed two large mugs of Atole de cajeta. It’s a hot, sweet drink made from boiled rice mixed with condensed milk and caramel (and touch of cinnamon). He explained this is what we need with our tamales and that the drink comes from northern Mexico. He then reached over us again to hand Scott a plate with two steaming tamales, sweet and stuffed with fresh figs and cheese(!).
“These are also for you,” he said. “My favourite. Enjoy a wonderful time in Mexico!”
Indeed. This experience is Mexico. Friendly, generous, unassuming.
Scott’s mother, Fern, grew up in a village in Oaxaca and Mexico City. It’s a fascinating story and he’ll write about it later. But he was telling her how much I loved it here. He told her about our friends Julie and Jorge and how generous they were and how we felt like we’d known them a long time.
“There’s nothing like Mexico!” She said. “Wonderful, beautiful, kind and compassionate people. Friends for life! So be prepared!”
She has had many friends from Mexico over the years. She meant that Mexicans are not people who simply coast into your life for a good, short time. They take friendship seriously.
Jorge and Julie
Scott met Jorge through his interest in mechanical watches. It’s a long story. They’d never met face-to-face but had chatted online over the years about watches and other gadgets. He follows our blog posts and has invited us to visit many, many times. When we knew we were coming to Mexico, we told Jorge in the off chance he was in Mexico City. Jorge lives with his wife Julie and their two daughters in Monterrey, a large city on the U.S./Mexican border near El Paso. It’s a long way from Mexico City. But he and Julie made a special trip to Mexico City just to meet us and show us around. We were shocked. We doubt anyone in Canada or the US would ever do that. Julie put together an amazing itinerary and they showed us their favourite parts of Mexico City. Like good friends we haven’t seen in a long time, our relationship immediately felt incredibly comfortable. We were completely at ease with them and fell into a wonderful, warm and sincere rhythm as we made our way here and there across this enormous metropolis.
They made a special effort to introduce us to the food they loved and considered essentially Mexican. We spent three days with them and it was just so easy. We miss them already. But we know we’ll spend more time with them soon.
Vipassana Meditation in Mexico
One of the main reasons we came to Mexico was to conduct a couple of Vipassana retreats at Dhamma Makaranda. It’s a small centre located on a large piece of land in the mountains between Toluca and Valle de Bravo, a few hours west of Mexico City.
Scott had always spoken so highly of his memories of Mexico as a kid, but somehow Mexico had never made it into my mind as a place we needed to visit. That was a huge mistake. As we explore this city and get to know people who live here, I have no idea how it is that I have lived my whole life so far without coming to Mexico. The culture, people, sites and beauty of this place is sincerely hard to articulate in words.
We will tell you a lot more about this country in a couple of later posts, but for now we’ll share the photos of our first couple of weeks. Enjoy the colour of this warm and friendly culture.